Here are the occasional reflections of a joyful traveller along the strange pathways of fantasy and adventure. All my reviews are independent and unsolicited.

I started this blog intending to write only about children's fantasy ('magic fiction') but have since widened my scope to include any work of children's fiction that I have read and enjoyed. Fantasy will still probably predominate, as it remains a favourite genre, but I cannot now resist sharing thoughts on other wonderful books too. (MG and occasionally YA.)

Here you will find only recommendations, never negative reviews. If I read a book which I feel is less than wonderful (which happens far more often than not) then I simply don't write about it. This blog is, rather, a celebration of the most exciting books I stumble across on my meandering reading journey, and of the important, life-affirming experiences they offer. It is but a very small thank you for the wonderful gifts their writers give.

Friday, 21 December 2018

The Lost Books: The Scroll of Kings by Sarah Prineas

The Magic Thief

Were I to list my top ten children's magic fantasy sequences from the 'post-Potter' era, then Sarah Prineas' The Magic Thief books would certainly be up there. They may not be amongst the more profound of such works, but they are certainly amongst the most enjoyable. They have all the qualities of first rate fantasy entertainment. 

Now she has struck gold again with The Lost Books. Precisely the same accolades apply, and they apply to this recent offering largely because of two outstanding qualities. 

A librarian and a queen

This book shares its core premise with most other children's fantasies; a young boy discovers a special destiny and has to grow his way into it. His dramatic journey is paralleled by that of a young girl. The setting of a broadly 'mediaeval' fantasy kingdom is very familiar too, although no less convincing for that. However Sarah Prineas' most recent take on these tropes is both original and highly imaginative. Young Alex's discovery is not that he is a wizard, but a librarian, albeit one who has to contend with enchanted books, many of them violently hostile to boot. There have been many books about books over the years, but this one is certainly fresh and vivid. It explores, both explicitly and implicitly, the many potentialities of books, their power to be a source of evil and of good. 

At the same time, it charts the journey of young queen, Kenneret, from domination by her self-seeking, former regent uncle, to acceptance of her own authority and responsibilities. It is a tale which very successfully marries an exciting and engaging plot with many prompts for thoughtful reflection. And of course any book that celebrates libraries and librarians is, in the present climate, warmly to be welcomed. 

Irascibility and bickering 

Yet it is not the narrative context that is the real delight of this novel, but its characters and relationships. Alex is far from the usual fantasy hero. Rather he is moody and petulant. Quick to anger, he often opens his mouth inappropriately, when he would do far better to keep it closed. And yet he has a basic honesty of demeanour which is refreshing and his unswerving determination to become a librarian and protect his books is richly admirable. He manages to be hugely engaging despite his many flaws. Similarly his relationship with Kenneret is far from an easy friendship. Their bickering and even outright hostility are frequently entertaining. Witnessing their gradual growth towards grudging mutual respect is possibly the highlight of the novel. 

More to come?

Although it appears that Sarah Prineas has a new novel, Dragonfall, in the pipeline for this coming year, it does not look to be a sequel to this. It should, of course, be well worth looking out for in its own right. Yet it would seem from several clues that The Lost Books is being set up as the start of a new sequence. I do hope so; it has much potential to be an outstanding one. However, either way, there is clearly much to look forward to from this excellent children's writer. 

Thursday, 13 December 2018

The books I am giving my (second) granddaughter for Christmas

A brief seasonal diversion from my usual reviews. 

Last year we experienced the tremendous joy of our first grandchild and, believing passionately that there are only a few things more important that growing up a reader, at Christmas we gave her a parcel of books. They were not baby books as such (she already, thankfully, had a basket full of them) but what I thought of as 'books that she can grow up with and through'. (See my post from December 2017.) This summer we were equally thrilled by the birth of our second granddaughter, so have been eager to do the equivalent for her. After much enjoyable searching and reflection, there are the books I have chosen. 

Two things I would dearly love our granddaughter to grow up with are a deep love of the natural world and an equal love for language and poetry. With the parents she has, I think there is every chance of both, but hopefully these two volumes will help a little too. The first was an easy and immediate choice, The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris. Robert Macfarlane is undoubtedly one the the greatest (nature) writers of our generation and Jackie Morris is one of my all-time favourite children's book artists, far more than simply an illustrator. As a result, this volume is quite simply one of the most ravishingly beautiful and inspiring I know. The writer's 'spells' and the artist's large-scale images are together an irresistible invitation to get to know and appreciate the natural world around us. 

The anthology I Am the Seed that Grew the Tree compiled by Fiona Waters and illustrated by Fran Preston-Gannon is a superbly rich resource of nature poems by a diverse range of fine writers. It serves both my aims here perfectly . Hopefully, with these books,  our granddaughter will be able to revel in looking at the stunning images and hearing the evocative language even before she is able to read for herself. 

Related, although slightly different, the wordless picture book Footpath Flowers by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith is another kind of poetry. It is essentially the poetry of ideas, of thought,  expressed through simple but telling images. It speaks of finding beauty in small  things as we move through life, and of making our world better through simple giving. It is deeply touching and conveys a most important message to grow up with. Our granddaughter will perhaps be able to access this book a little earlier than the others here, but hopefully its simple images and honest sentiment will last a lifetime. 


Another thing I would wish our granddaughter to grow up with is her full inheritance of Folk and Fairy Tales from across the world. This collection is only one of many wonderful ones I could have chosen. However this particular edition of East of the Sun and West of the Moon edited by Noel Daniel is distinguishing by the most stunning art work from justifiably renowned Kay Nielsen. Her luxurious, almost Beardsley-like, Art Nouveau images make this another ravishing volume, a delight in its own right and a superb invitation to dream and to wonder. 

As children's author Cornelia Funke recently wrote*, even though many Fairy Tales do not reflect the social attitudes we look for today, they 'still enchant profoundly. For in their imagery of monsters and magical things they preserve many forgotten truths. Sometimes we lost the key to decipher them, but the images keep their power nevertheless '. Fairy Tales are an important  part of our cultural and literary heritage. Children need to know them, even though they do not need to think or behave like some of the characters in them. A girl cannot understand that she need not be a fairytale princess unless she knows what a fairytale princess is in the first place. 

And on which matter, my last choice was as easy to make as it is important to give. Last year I gave my first granddaughter the unspeakably wonderful and rightly trendsetting Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo (illustrated by a host of contemporary female artists from around the world). When a follow up '2' came out from the same team it was a must for our second grandchild. The two cousins are close enough in age that hopefully they will share and compare some day. I inscribed last year's gift with, 'Be a rebel,'  so I just cannot resist signing this book from Grandma and Grandpa with, 'Be a rebel, too.'

In Through the Water Curtain & Other Tales from Around the World, Introduction, page 12   (This is itself a fine book that I hope to review in full very soon.) 

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

My Books of the Year 2018

Long list

I read hundreds of children's books each year but only write about a handful of them, those that have really excited me and that I can wholeheartedly recommend. Consequently, all the titles I have reviewed this year constitute a long list of my best books of 2018. They are all wonderful stories by staggeringly talented writers; if I did not consider them so, they would not be on my blog at all. 

Of course there will also have been amazing new books that I have missed, or that are still waiting in my enormous reading pile. I very much hope that I will be able to catch up with many of them soon. 

The best of the best

However, I have been able to pull out my ten favourite favourites without too much difficulty; they are truly outstanding. All of them are highly engaging, hugely entertaining books, but they are far more too. Each, in its different way, shows that originality and imagination, that richness of thought and language, and, above all, that depth of resonant humanity that makes for a truly great children's novel. 

Some are from amongst the best-sellers of 2018 and alrighty heaped with accolades. Others are, as yet, perhaps less well known. I sincerely hope that recommendation here will encourage at least some of you to seek them out, if they are new to you.  The richest of rewards lie in wait if you do 

My books of 2018

Here they are then, not in any order of preference. If you wish, you can look up my full reviews in the blog archive. 

The Endless King (Knights of the Borrowed Dark, Book 3) by Dave Rudden (Post April '18)
This final instalment of Dave Rudden's sequence is every bit as good as might have been hoped. There are very few  more exciting, involving, terrifying or affecting reads currently to be found. His writing is masterly and this trilogy, crowned by The Endless King, is one of our finest examples of exactly what children's fantasy fiction can achieve. 

Twelve Nights by Andrew Zurcher (Post April '18)
With its rich language and extended description, its long apparent diversions into older stories, its complex plotting and its extended metaphors, this is not a quick, easy book to read. But, then, what truly great book is? Andrew Zurcher weaves us a story that is breathtaking in its imagining, masterly in its realisation and profound in its resonance.  We must wrap its fabulous fabric around us and live for a while cloaked in its enriching mysteries. 

Station Zero (Railhead Book 3) by Philip Reeve (Post May '18)
I am tempted to say that Station Zero is by far the finest book of a very fine trilogy. But it is more that. It is the work that brings its predecessors into full focus and illuminates the greatness of the whole trilogy. Many works of children's fiction centre on their protagonist discovering their own self. Railhead, rather, is about discovering how many selves we can be. Those who read Railhead, with its superb culmination in Station Zero, will be left with a head filled with multiple worlds, multiple lives, and, always, the image of those incredible sentient trains. I promise you that nothing could be further from Thomas the Tank Engine. 

The Storm Keeper's Island by Catherine Doyle (Post July '18)
Catherine Doyle's is one of the most devastatingly exciting new voices in children's fiction that I have encountered in a long time. Her protagonist, Fionn, is not quite a Harry Potter or a Percy Jackson. He is far more. His story is deeper, richer  and more genuinely dark. It is linked to the power of an island, to the power of the elements, and resonances with the power that lies within us all as human beings. His story is a great fantasy, and is surely the opener of a great fantasy sequence yet to come. 

The Turning by Emily Whitman (Post August '18)
There have been many children's novels about Selkies. There have been even more about a young person's journey towards finding their true self. There can have been few of either more affecting than this one. It is a work of rich imagination and superlative language, a very fine novel indeed.  It is about anyone who has two identities, two lives, which are both their true self.  As the author says in her own final note: 'We've all got the ocean inside us. beautiful, mysterious, and untamed. Like Aran we are two everythings.' 

Bone Talk by Candy Gourlay (Post September '18)
This is not only a gripping read, but a hugely important book too. It is also an exciting, terrifying, moving and deeply disturbing one.  It is a story that made me reflect profoundly on the world in which we live, where it has come from and where it is going. It took me to a place I have never been, a culture I have never known - and it helped me to realise, with shock and with grief, that all along it has been part of me, and I of it. 

The Blue Cat by Ursula Dubosarsky (post September '18)
This author is my discovery of the year, a world class children's writer that I am only just getting to know. Her latest book is not an easy read, but it is a revelation. No book relating to the Second World War and its horrors has moved me more . Although those horrors are only conjured obliquely, through metaphor, they are no les affecting. It is not a particularly long book, but it is one that needs to be read slowly, to relish its captivating detail, to pick up its delicate nuances, and to spot the rare glimpses of the elusive blue cat amidst the seemingly commonplace experiences of a war-haunted childhood. 

Dragon Daughter by Liz Flanagan (Post October '18)
Some books you can wrap yourself in, like a cozy duvet. There is something very special in the idea of a dragon hatchling imprinting on a human child, and of the two developing a lifelong, emotional, almost physical, bond. I think it is, perhaps, a perfect metaphor for the desire in all of us to bond with the world of fantasy, of imagination, of magic; to discover its power and its freedom; to fly our own dragon through life. Liz Flanagan capitalises upon our need for such a dragon as convincingly and captivatingly as any children's writer I have encountered. 

Bluecrowne by Kate Milford (Post November '18)
Kate Milford is one of my all-time favourite children's writers and the world she creates across her several linked novels is truly wondrous, original, imaginative and deeply compelling. This title, formerly only available as an e-book, is not only an engrossing read in its own right, but also a key link between her other books. It is therefore a truly wonderful thing to at last have Bluecrowne in book form. Hopefully it will attract many new readers, not only as a follow up to the very popular Greenglass House books, but also to her other fascinating works. 

The Skylarks' War by Hilary McKay (Post November '18)
This book is a fine commemoration of WWI and a telling reconstruction of what it meant to grow up through that deeply troubled period of our recent history. It is about many other important things too. However, more than being about the Great War and its terrible waste, more than being about girls' abilities, rights and needs, more than being about the rights and needs of sensitive, emotional and gay boys, this book is about how kindness and love can transcend even the most grotesque of horrors. And that is a wonderfurl message for any children's novel. It is truly heartwarming - and a real gem of a book. 

And to round off

In finishing,  I would like add two final recommendations, that are, in a sense, more retrospective. Alan Garner is one of the finest ever children's writers as well as one of the most innovative. First Light (post June '18) is a remarkable anthology in which a whole host of contemporary writers pay tribute to his remarkable genius and helpfully elucidate some of his often challenging work. 

The most recent publication by the author himself, a short memoir, Where Shall We Run To? (post August '18) is far from a major work, but nevertheless a fascinating example of deceptively simple writing conveying remarkable human truths. Both books provide invaluable insight into the author and his work and are surely essential reads for any interested in children's literature, past or present. 

Sunday, 25 November 2018

The Skylarks' War by Hilary McKay

'Away from the front, where the supply lines ran. . . you could hear skylarks over the fields. Soldiers remarked how strange it was that the birds should be there, but in fact the birds had been there for centuries. The really strange thing was that the soldiers were there.' (p 194)

100 years on

Here is another of my occasional digressions from my usual practice of reading and reviewing fantasy books. I simply had to write this one up. 

Often, when  I finish a good book, I trawl about for ages trying to find the 'right' one to read next. The last time this happened, though, was 11th November, the exact one hundredth anniversary of the 1918 armistice, so it seemed appropriate to pull out from my reading pile this historical novel, charting a family's lives through what we now call WWI. I did not regret the decision for a minute. It is not only a truly wonderful  but also a very important one, one that will certainly feature amongst my children's books of the year. 

The cover of The Skylarks' War, by talented Dawn Cooper, is a telling reflection of its contents. It presents a striking evocation of a bygone era, capturing beautifully a colour palette of it period and bringing immediately to mind those attractive prints of old railway posters, now found on many a wall calendar. Yet the image is not exactly a holiday advertisement; the farewell it depicts has an air of poignancy, especially in view of the uniform of the departing figure, and, indeed, the youth of those waving him off. 

Living through a war

The book inside this cover is just as evocative as its jacket, just as alluring and every bit as poignant. The story follows Clarry, together with her brother Peter, and some of their friends, relatives and neighbours, through from her birth in 1902 to sometime in the 1920s. However, the greatest focus is on the war years themselves. It is  a story  about growing up, about a time of war and, most particularly, about growing up in a time of war. 

Clarry's family situation is totally credible, even if it is not at all a conventional one, and the story of her childhood and youth is amazingly gripping for what is essentially a narrative of day to day domestic incident. Part of this engagement comes from the utter likability of its principal characters and our consequent empathy with what they have to endure and overcome. Part too comes from the way the war gradually impinges more and more on the lives of people we have quickly grown to care about. Time before the war is epitomised for Clarry by idyllic holidays staying with her grandparents in Cornwall. Soon, though, the presence of the war becomes almost a character in the tale. Its influence is initially peripheral, almost incidental. In its early days there is little real understanding of what is happening and will happen, even a naive romanticism about it. 

''Shells' was another word that became more often used. 'Shells' and 'shellfire'. Always when Clarry heard it , her mind jumped to the fans and spirals and fragile treasures she had collected on the Cornish beaches, summer after summer . . . 'A rain of falling shells': Clarry caught the phrase one day as she hurried home from school. It sounded entrancing.' (p 109)

However, the darkness of war begins to creep in, on Peter, as on the others, particularly once their beloved older friend Rupert, companion from the blissful stays in Cornwall, enlists despite being under age. 

'It was hard to hide the despair he felt, for Clarry in the comfortless house, for ridiculous Rupert, for summers that were so far away, for all the Ruperts and Clarrys caught up in this hardly understood war.' (p 106)

As the book develops,  the author does not shrink from war's horrors, or from the devastatingly grim realities of the trenches. It impinges devastatingly upon her characters, as indeed it does on us, her readers. This is strong, brave writing, disturbing  and moving as we share with its characters an incomprehensible nightmare. 

'It was a war where absolutely nothing made sense.' (p 194)

Yet Clarry's quiet passion and remarkable inner strength may well see her through, and us with her. 

The Skylarks 

When I first picked up this book I imagined it was going to be about a family with the surname Skylark. (Collectively, 'The Skylarks'. You know, rather like 'The Larkins' in Darling Buds of May), But Clarry and her family are actually Penroses. This title turns out to be much more subtle, more thoughtful, that I initially thought it. In fact you need to look quite hard to find the skylarks. Poignantly, they are mentioned once, singing above the battlefields of France. There is one further mention of the actual birds as a feature of Clarry's Cornish summers. Perhaps most significantly, her grandfather uses the term once to refer to his visiting grandchildren. The book's key characters are skylarks, if not by name. Ultimately, they rise above the battles, above the war. 

However, the war itself is not the only thing they rise above. Hilary McKay's novel treats of many things, many important things. The book rightly, but often disturbingly, reflects the attitudes of that period towards the role and potential of women. It highlights how many opportunities were considered 'only for boys', and the fact that Clarry determinedly pushes on through all this to get herself a higher education and a potential career is inspirational, providing a wonderful role model as well as a harbinger of the women's struggles to come. Similarly the character of Peter's schoolfriend Simon, sensitive, caring and wildly in love with the slightly older Rupert, is handled with wonderful sensitivity. We are brought up hard against more hurtful prejudice of the times. 

'Yes of course (Simon gets laughed at at school) . . . and so does anyone who isn't a silly, grinning, sports-playing, book-hating, first-year-tormenting, prefect-grovelling, hair-parted-on-the-right ---' (p 122)

Yet Hilary McKay contrasts these hateful attitudes most movingly with the empathy and understanding for Simon that she rightly engenders in us as readers. 

An abiding humanity

It is a book that champions the rights of both girls and boys to be who they are and become who they can become. It shows how far attitudes and opportunities have moved in the last hundred years, but also, by implication, flags up, too, how far we still have to go. There are just too many instances where the prejudices of 1918 still sound all too like some we might encounter, in at least some quarters, today. 

This telling story also has much to imply about the role fathers need to play in their children's lives, about the importance of educational opportunity and, indeed, about the power of books to help us survive and grow. More than anything though, more than being about the Great War, more than about girls' abilities, rights and needs, more than the rights and needs of sensitive, emotional and gay boys, this book is about how kindness and love can transcend even the most grotesque of horrors. And that is a wonderful message for any children's book. It is truly heartwarming. May it warm yours and that of many, many children. 

The book is published in the USA as Love to Everyone, a reference to Rupert's usual sign off in his letters home from the Western Front. I am delighted that such a fine novel is available over there too, although I think the UK title is, on this occasion, by far the better. 

Monday, 19 November 2018

The illustrated World of Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve & Jeremy Levett

Treat for fans

The 1st November was a red letter day for fans of Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines, of which I am but one of a huge number. It marked the publication of The Illustrated World of Mortal Engines, a sumptuous supplement to the original sequence. 

This book is certainly one for those who are already immersed in the world of the novels. The text, produced by Philip Reeve in collaboration with writer Jeremy Levett, is not a continuous narrative, but a sequence of snippets filling in background information and additional detail about places, characters and events from the books. As such they are, however, fascinating. The highly inventive naming of people, places and things has always been one of the many highlights of the books. This particular delight is well built upon here and the verbal vignettes are both entertaining and informative, often wittily amusing but revelatory too. Whilst their considerable attraction attraction will be essentially for aficionados, perhaps they will attract and whet the appetites of newcomers too. I do hope so. 

Illustrated world

However, for me, and I suspect many others, there is an even greater pleasure to be found in this volume, its plethora of wonderful illustrations by a range of highly talented fantasy artists. It provides truly breathtaking images of the world Philip Reeve created, from Aedel Fakhrie, Ian McQue, Maxime Plasse, Rob Turpin, Philip Varbanov, David Wyatt and Amir Zand. 

The range of these artists' envisioning is as diverse as it is fascinating. Their images delightfully add to the what we have so far pictured only in our own heads, and, since the visual imagination of so many of these illustrations far outstrips our own, they constitute a considerable and most valuable enrichment. That they do it in so many individual, but equally valid, ways only adds further to their collective effectiveness. 

Amongst my own particular favourites are Philip Varbanov's amazingly intricate line diagrams of the traction cities. His contributions to the development of 'London', near the start of this volume, is especially engaging and gives a strong feeling of credible history to Philip Reeve's world. Similarly,  the maps from Maxime Plasse help relate its  post-apocalyptic geography chillingly closely to our own. David Wyatt and Amir Zand both add strongly coloured and  dramatic images too. For me, however, the most mind-blowing illustrations of all remain the double-page spreads by Ian McQue, also used for the covers of the most recent paperback editions. 

And a movie still to come

I am sure that the forthcoming major film, based on the first book, will engender many more fans of the Mortal Engines world. I only hope that it will also encourage more young people to read for themselves the whole sequence of books, which are amongst the very finest examples of children's speculative fiction to have been penned for many a year*. 

*Philip Reeve's more recent Railhead sequence is also very special indeed.  See my review from May 2018. 

Sunday, 11 November 2018

The Train to Impossible Places by P. G. Bell

'This whole stupid situation - trolls and bears and trains and just all of it - was starting to upset her. Because, while she never would have admitted it, she had always been secretly proud of her ability to understand the nuts and bolts of reality. Now, though, it felt as though that reality was tilting underneath her, threatening to throw her off. She just wanted to make sense of it again.' (p 30-31)

Infinite impossibility drive

Some fantasies create a world that, whilst clearly very different from our own, retains enough of the same cohesion and logic to feel completely credible. The very best of such fantasy worlds often provide metaphors for aspect of  our own lives too.*

There is, however, a very different quality of fantasy that is also an important feature of the canon of children's literature, one that builds a world of rampant imagination, paying little if any heed to reason as we know it.  Such are the worlds Alice finds down the rabbit hole and Milo enters through The Phantom Tollbooth. Lewis Carroll, Norton Juster and other such writers play with logic by making it illogical. In their imagined worlds illogicality becomes the dominant schema.

P. G. Bell's is just such a world: one where gravity can be redirected at the turn of a dial, so that a train can run vertically; one where, a yellow bear can be the 'firewoman' of an steam engine fuelled by fusion bananas; one where a little girl's house can be a shortcut to reroute a troll postal express. This is, after all, The Train to Impossible Places. It dos not need to embody the possible. Quite the reverse. This train travels 'from Trollville to the five corners of reality.' (p 32). It is interdimensional. Like Dr Who's Tardis, it does not conform to the laws of our physics. 

Protagonist Suzy, a girl with a logical, scientific outlook on life, is catapulted Alice-like into this impossible  world.  Through this sudden fracture of credibility, the author is able to develop a wonderful contrast between her physics, 'which always makes sense', and 'fuzzics', a totally different order for her new world', which doesn't make sense at all - and doesn't have to. It is impossible. 

And yet Suzy wants desperately to understand what is happening to her and around her.  It is this  need, in fact, that leads her to take the wild leap and board the train in the first place. Shortly afterwards, when she first comes face to face with Ursula, the on-board bear, her reaction is typical, fear superseded by curiosity. 

'It's going to eat me, she thought. Eaten by a bear in my own house. But the thought that made her saddest was this: Now I'll never get to understand what's happening.' (p 31)

Clever clever

Like Carroll and Juster before him, Peter Bell plays with words and ideas in a way that is both clever and utterly delightful. 

'In panic she saw the waves rise past the portholes. . . 
"We're sinking!" she exclaimed. 
"Actually, we're diving," said Wilmot. "It's like sinking, but on purpose. "' (p 105)

'"As a nation we're positively pecorous."
Every head turned to Neville in bewilderment. 
"Pecorous," he said. "It means 'full of cows'. No?" He looked around for a sympathetic face, but found none. "It's a terribly useful word, in the right circumstances," he muttered.' (p 130)

Rattling Tale

One problem with such illogical worlds is that it can be difficult to build a compulsive narrative within them. When absolutely anything can happen, without rhyme or reason, it is hard to engender anticipation and build tension. But Peter Bell rises magnificently above this potential constraint. His story rattles along, just like the crazy, fantastic, impossible train that it is. But then, how could it not, when it is fuelled by the atomic bananas of this author's wild imaginings?


In many ways, this narrative has both the feel and the appeal of the very best children's animated feature films: it is zany and funny; it positively zings with cliff-hanger suspense; it is brightly coloured and  filled with eccentric but loveable characters. Wilmot, the young postmaster, dressed in a uniform many sizes too big, and trying to carry a responsibility to match, must be a strong contender for the most endearing troll in children's literature. Frederick, the less-than-honest prince enspelled into a snowglobe, is as entertaining as he is intriguing - although perhaps he isn't a prince at all. And then there is the grumpy engine driver and his 'sidekick'  'firewoman', who just happens to be a huge yellow bear. This hugely entertaining cast is vividly imagined, and, dramatically balanced by the villainous and power-hungry Crepucula, who appears to be every bit the match for Cruella, Grimhilde or Maleficent.

And through it all rides Suzy, enormously likeable, so easy to identify with in her bewilderment, her trepidation and (yes) her occasional anger, but also so admirable in her resourcefulness, her loyalty and her courage. She is the ideal protagonist, simultaneously who we are and who we want to be. 

The solutions to the plot's many dilemmas and crises jump out with predictable unpredictability. Improbable they may be, impossible certainly, but the story has more than enough twists and turns to keep any driver of this wonderful reading train steaming full pelt along its rails. And, when the destination is reached, suffice it to say that the climactic final chapters are not only thrilling but completely unexpected. What else?

In the end, as with a myriad other children's fantasies,  yet another whole universe is, of course, saved by the bravery of an ordinary child who turns out to be rather special. However, P. G. Bell's debunking of the situation is enough to turn even this cliché into a delight. 

'"How dare you put me through all that!" (Suzy) said. "I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life in a snow globe!"
"And it was very noble of you," said Crepuscula. "Perhaps you'd like a sticker or a lollipop or something?"' (p 347)

Transatlantic treat

This is truly wonderful children's reading entertainment, some of the very best I have come across for a good while. It does not try to be profound or 'relevant', and yet its wild, imaginative invention, its clever play with ideas and its sheer liveliness of storytelling lift it into the category of fine children's fiction. 

Fortunately for transatlantic readers, there is also a US edition, with the 's' removed from 'maths' and everything. It has a great cover to boot, even though it lacks the gorgeous illustration that hides beneath the dust jacket of he UK hardback. Swings and roundabouts. But it's a rollicking, track-rattling ride on either version of the train. The impossible will make sense, for a while at least.  

*As, for example, in Dragon Daughter, which I reviewed very recently. 

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Bluecrowne by Kate Milford

'He liked to do it this way: walking easily and leisurely from then to now just as you'd walk from here to there, so that the passage of time took on the feel of a hike along a gusty road, the years passing on all sides like buffeting leaves in a hard wind.'

A very special author

Regular readers of this blog will know that I rate US author Kate Milford as one of the most important, exciting and original contemporary writers of children's fiction. Taken as a whole, her body of work is up with the finest creations in the genre.*  So the first hardback edition of her novel Bluecrowne has to be one of my highlights of the publishing year. 

Each novel in her growing opus is essentially complete in itself. Only Ghosts of Greenglass House  can really be called a sequel (to Greenglass House, obviously). Some of her books are indeed quite different in character and atmosphere. Yet all are interrelated in intriguing ways; they are all ultimately part of the same world. Sometimes the books are linked by place, sometimes by the reappearance of particular objects. They sometimes tell stories about different generations of the same family, and many feature the same enigmatic figures, 'Jumpers' who are able to travel across  time as well as place. 

A very special world

The books cover slightly different periods from a span of history that is almost, but not quite, real history. They are not chronological in their writing order, but can be arranged into a chronology. They are set in places that are almost, but not quite, real places. They can be arranged on a map, which is almost, but not quite, a real map. They contain elements of fantasy and rich folklore and are almost, but not quite, fantasies. They are not quite like anything other than themselves; but they are very special and very wonderful. Each one is a completely enthralling read in its own right; intriguing and exciting; sometimes a little scary, but warm and life-enhancing too. Yet it is as a whole that this group of novels is at its most glorious, in building up its unspeakably rich and rewarding tapestry of hugely imaginative fiction. Many an emotional or intellectual tingle arises from gleefully recognising elements as you move from one story to another, discovering ever more of what you know, and  what you don't know, about this world and its people. It is pure reading joy, I promise you.  

A very special book

Of the various components of her world, two complete, shorter novels, The Kairos Mechanism and Bluecrowne have, until now, only been available in e-book format. Yet both are significant and hugely enjoyable works. Bluecrowne is not only an engrossing read in its own right, but also a key link between her other books. It fills in an early history for Greenglass House itself, but also links directly to The Left-handed Fate and, through the character of firework genius, Liao, to The Broken Lands. Involvement from the enigmatic 'Jumpers' also ties it back to The Boneshaker and to The Kairos Mechanism. It is therefore a truly wonderful thing to at last have Bluecrowne in book form. Even more pleasure is to be found in the fact that this is now a most handsome hardback, with a striking jacket from Jaime Zollars and enchanting internal images by Nicole Wong. These latter also subtly but effectively enhance the book's delightful representation of an ethnically diverse range of characters, with both girl and boy characters playing strong lead roles. 

Those who have already read Bluecrowne on screen need to be aware that this is not a different novel, only a new, lightly re-edited version. Nevertheless, to be able to shelve this exciting book alongside the author's others is a treat. Hopefully it will attract many new readers too, both as a follow up to the very popular Greenglass House books, and as a  lead on to Kate Milford's other novels. Because they dot about between people, places and times, they do not need to be read in any particular order.  However, though each book is outstandingly rewarding in itself,  it is her interlocking world as a whole that is her towering achievement and one of the greatest reading experiences of contemporary children's literature. Do not miss any of them. 

A very special wish

The books' American background should present no barrier to accessibility for those from other countries and cultures, and I most heartily recommend all to seek them out.  I very much hope that a matching volume of The Kairos Mechanism will be published very soon. This is in addition, of course, to my longing for Kate Milford to add further new dimensions to her wondrous world. 

See my earlier posts from September, November and December '16 and November '17. 

Saturday, 27 October 2018

The Legend of Sally Jones by Jakob Wegelius

Those many who, like me, are already captivated by Jakob Wegelius's uber-charming gorilla, Sally Jones, will not be able to resist this ravishing supplement to her life. Any who have not yet read The Murderer's Ape* could well be tempted by this beguiling introduction to discover the novel itself. I do hope so, because it is one of the most enjoyable, and original, highlights of recent children's fiction. 

This prequel to the novel itself has a somewhat different format, somewhere, perhaps, between a graphic novel and an older children's picture book. As such it does not provide the wondrously engrossing extended read of its 'big sister'. However it does fill in the back story of Sally Jones' life fascinatingly, including an explanation of how she got her somewhat surprising and incongruous name. Hers is, in fact, an early existence strewn with misfortune, as she is misled, betrayed, exploited and abused time after tragic time. Yet her story is ultimately a heart-warming, rather than as a heart-rending, one . Sally Jones is emotionally vulnerable in ways that will resonate with many of her readers, but she is also intelligent and resourceful; above all she is a survivor, and we ultimately rejoice in the real and lasting friendship which supports her through everything. 

What The Legend of Sally Jones lacks in the narrative detail of The Murderer's Ape, it fully makes up for in one glorious respect, its copious illustration. Whilst the longer novel beguiled us with scattered examples of Jakob Wegelius' arresting and idiosyncratic art work, this book glows with it on every single page, in ravishing pastel colour. His pictures can be amusing, intriguing, touching or beautiful. They are often all of these at the same time, altogether a delight. The different page layouts are most attractive too. If the other book is a testament to the glories of the author's enthralling storytelling , as it indeed is, then this one is a peon to the wonders of his imaginative image-making.  

Neither are to be missed at any price. Sally Jones is an ape well worth getting to know, verbally and visually. She will enrich the lives of countless children (and I suspect adults too) for many years to come.  

*See my review from Sept '17. 

Friday, 26 October 2018

Dragon Daughter by Liz Flanagan

'Milla saw a smooth, glistening expanse nestling in a deep velvet surround. There was a rounded dome inside, a light turquoise blue, dotted with dark gold speckles like the first drops of rain on stone. Gently, she wiggled her fingers down the sides and lifted it out.' (p 52)

Inside the outside

Some books you can wrap yourself in, like a cozy duvet. But you only sleep when they're finished.

The cover of Dragon Daughter has attracted much admiration on social media, and deservedly so. Angelo Rinaldi's illustration is indeed stunning. However, it would be a tragedy if interest stopped there, because the novel it envelopes is one of the most engrossing children's fantasy reads of recent years. This is a case where we really do get 'what it says on the tin'. From the jacket, the penetratingly magical eyes of a superbly imagined blue dragon shower us with fiery sparks. On its back rides the small but defiant figure of a girl,  a vision of hope glowing from from her young face. The rose light of a new dawn catches the fringes of  her lifting hair. And everything this striking image promises, Liz Flanagan's story delivers - everything and more. 

Even though it was a long time ago, I have clear memories of trailing home from school through grey streets, in a depressing downpour, my belted gabardine raincoat and schoolboy cap soaking in more water than they repelled. I huddled swiftly along, not so much because of the weather but because of what was waiting for me,  a world of comfort to which I ached to return, the world of a book. In those day it was probably an Arthur Ransome or a Malcolm Saville, although a  very first reading of The Lord of the Rings was not far ahead. These were books I lived in, books that I simultaneously longed to finish and wanted never to end. I was desperate to get to the final pages, not simply to find out what happened, but to reach that place when everything turned out all right. At the same time I wanted the book to go on and on; I didn't want to leave its world and, perhaps most of all, I didn't want to leave the company of its characters, who felt like my very special friends. I wanted to be with them, to be like them, to be them. And, whilst I was reading, I was. 

Only very rarely since then have I found books that immersed me in quite that way. Dragon Daughter is one of them 

The dragon's egg

At the heart of this new book protagonist, Milla, is present at the hatching of a dragon and the two pair for life. 

Of course, stories about dragons abound in fantasy literature. A good number of these are dragons that, on hatching, form a unique bond with a particular human, who subsequently becomes their rider. Perhaps the most deservedly famous of authors to exploit this idea is adult sci-fi/fantasy writer Anne McCaffery. Her Harper Hall Trilogy (Dragonsong; Dragonsinger; Dragondrums), is the element within her vast Dragonriders of Pern sequence most clearly aimed towards a Young Adult audience. It particularly stands out as amongst my all time most enjoyable reads. There are many children's books too that feature dragons, hatching eggs and riders. Amongst others writers, Cornelia Funke, Angie Sage and Cressida Cowell have all, in different ways, woven wonderful magic from these particular story elements  

So, if is is not originality of concept, then what is it that makes Dragon Daughter such an outstanding  book?

New world, new friends

For starters,  Liz Flanagan builds a convincing 'high' fantasy world of compelling intrigue that almost immediately draws us in. In has a rich balance of familiarity and freshness that we enter willingly together with that mixture  of comfort and excited stimulation that constitutes a really good read. Added to this Milla and her small group of friends are not just interesting but completely credible as characters - and hugely likeable too. It is easy to identify with them.  What happens to them as the story develops swiftly engenders that very state of mind where we desperately want things to work out well, but fear that they won't - for a good while at least.

When we are reading this book, it does not matter one jot that stories about dragon riders have been written before because we are living through every engrossing moment of this one. Only this particular story is important. This place matters because it is the one we are in.  This situation matters because it is the one we are experiencing. These characters are the ones we care about, not in some abstract way, but right here, right now. This author's imagining of the events comes alive. Everything that happens matters to Milla, so it matters to us. 

I don't know exactly what it is in the writing that creates this effect, but it is the mark of a very talented children's author.


'In the days that followed, Milla would be glad of those wakeful hours she'd spent with her dragon. She held the memory of their closeness like a blanket around her against what happened next.' (p 294) By the later stages of the story we readers know exactly how she felt. We need all the warmth and feel good of the earlier chapters to survive the shocking trauma and heartache of the climactic later ones.

Dragon Daughter is an outstanding example of the power of story. Although the development of the narrative involves descent into revolution and bloody warfare, it remains very much the tale of Milla and her friends - and, of course, their dragons. Perhaps, indeed, this is where its true power lies. It has a human scale, whilst still dealing with huge events and themes. 

Deep wrongs

And there lies the essence of of it. The greatest thing of all about Liz Flanagan's writing, is that this book is not just a story. Into its plot she subtly but surely weaves some of today's most real and concerning themes. Embedded within her narrative is an exploration of racism, with examples of its most fundamental and heinous expression. Although seen through the veils of fantasy, its presence immediately resonates with our own world. A ' superior' society  that  treats with blatant unfairness and careless cruelty those it considers inferior feels all too familiar. Impoverished and neglected 'camps' of unwelcome immigrants only add to the picture. And, when individuals are forced, by draconian law, to wear symbols sewn on their clothing to externally badge their racial status, the horrendous parallels are obvious. 

Strident beneath all this is the despotism of  the ruling Duke. It is abundantly clear that his tyranny, and its pervasive abhorrent attitudes, stem directly from a male dominance and and unconcerned determination to maintain perceived masculine power and superiority at any cost.  Fortunately Milla, and a good few other strong female characters, are there to oppose him. It is highly pertinent, too, that they seek to replace those attitudes, not with an alternative tyranny, but with a new, inclusive and tolerant way of living in their world. It is quietly, but powerfully, a very feminist book. And three cheers for that. 

However, unlike some of the most strident feminist writers, Liz Flanagan does not demonise all males. Once imprinted by his dragon, the Duke's son, Vigo, becomes very much a 'new man', fighting alongside Milla for freedoms that should belong to all people equally. There also are other boys and men in the story, willing to stand up for what is right, and pay the cost, alongside the girls and women. And three cheers for that too.

Politics and fantasy

After writing Tehanu, the much later sequel to her renowned Earthsea trilogy, Ursula Le Guin was accused of  'politicising her delightful fantasy world'. In response she reminded us that, 'The world apart of a fantasy inevitably refers back to this world. All the moral weight of it is real weight. The politics of fairyland are ours.' * I can think of few better examples of this than Dragon Daughter. The fact that Liz Flanagan achieves it whilst still keeping everything fully accessible to a young audience, and entertainin them hugely to boot, is much to her credit. She does not lecture, but embodies her messages in her characters and their actions - and that is what great fiction does. 

'Milla's new knowledge of her own heritage still felt dangerous, incendiary as firepowder. She circled it warily. But one distant day, if they won this fight, she resolved to sit in the palace library and read every book, every sentence, every word that had ever been written (about that heritage).' (p 322). 

Thankfully there are now many books that can help girls, and indeed boys too, to envision the world as it can and should be. And this is one of them. 

Flying with a dragon

There is something very special in the idea of a dragon hatchling imprinting on a human child, of the two developing a lifelong, emotional, almost physical, bond. I think it is, perhaps, a perfect metaphor for the desire, the need, in all of us to bond with the world of fantasy, of imagination, of magic; to discover its power and its freedom; to fly our own dragon through life. Liz Flanagan capitalises upon our need for such a dragon  as convincingly and captivatingly as any children's writer I have encountered. 

But there is more to Dragon Daughter even than this. Its messages, both overt and subliminal, are profoundly important. 

'The dragon's must belong to everyone. The new eggs must hatch before everyone. We have to do things differently.' (p 322)

It is about revisioning the world. 

'Milla and the dragon stared at each other and the world was remade.' (p 122) So it is for readers of this wondrous book, for its duration at least - and, perhaps, through their power to imagine things being different, for ever. Now that's magic. 

* In a lecture of 1992, later published under the title Earthsea Revisioned. 

Sunday, 14 October 2018

The Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher

'All the house was strange. Snow-glimmer lit ceilings and odd corners with a reflected whiteness. . . It was as if the house wanted her to flit silently through its secrets.'  (p 133)

An older magic

The fact that award-winning author Catherine Fisher was appointed as the inaugural Young Person's Laureate for Wales in 2014 is testament to her stature as a children's writer - if indeed any were needed beyond her considerable body of wonderful writing. 

I have been a huge fan of hers since she started writing, at the beginning of the 1990s. In those days she produced a number of outstanding fantasies for older children, much in the tradition of Alan Garner; terse, enigmatic works that drew potently on Celtic myth, particularly that of her native Wales. Three of theses first novels, The Conjuror's Game, Fintan's Tower and The Candle Man were subsequently republished together as The Glass Tower. She followed with another outstanding trilogy The Snow-Walker. All are still most definitely worth seeking out, both by adults interested in children's literature and by young readers themselves. 

Later, her powerful, imaginative writing developed more for a young adult audience. Of her many wonderful titles and sequences Incarceron stands out as one of the masterworks of the genre, although my own favourites remain those most strongly drawing on Celtic myth, to which she returns time and again, notably Darkhenge and Corbenic

Now she has produced what I think is her first major novel for younger children (7 upwards, I would say). And most welcome it is too, particularly as works of this fine quality are comparatively rare for the age-group. Beautifully crafted and sensitively written it is intriguing and exciting. It chills with its tale of snowy winter, both in landscape and atmosphere, whilst simultaneously warming with deep charm and inventive humour. 

Supreme storytelling 

Catherine Fisher's language is superficially accessible, as befits her audience, yet she proves herself brilliant at evoking place, character and atmosphere. Her word-painting shows all the honed skill of art that conceals art. It is a testament to this skill that it was only a few pages into the book before this reader felt completely drawn into the world of her protagonist. And a very cold world it is too. This is a book to read wrapped  a warm sweater, hugging a mug of  hot chocolate. 

Initially this 'Victorian' tale has something of the feel of The Secret Garden, as orphan Seren ('Star' in Welsh) arrives in a large house left desolate by the mysterious disappearance of the son of the household. Peopled with a small cast of strongly drawn characters, gripping intrigue drives the narrative relentlessly, if chillingly, forward, until it gradually morphs into something more ephemeral. Fantasy seeps in and, in the later stages, the story becomes deeply magical as it draws further into its Celtic roots. Here it is enigmatic, mysterious, almost poetic, in a way that gently echoes Catherine Fisher's earlier books, and it immerses its young audience in a  world of fantasy very different from, say, Harry Potter, but, perhaps, far more potent too. Its key is a drop of blood and a single tear. 

A crow, couplets and Christmas 

One of the imaginative triumphs of the novel is the creation of the titular clockwork crow. Superficially gruff and irascible, and indeed possibly mendacious , this tatty assembly of a creature nevertheless adds humour and warmth to the tale, and his relationship with protagonist Seren is ultimately central to a cleverly paced and structured plot.

Another of the the delightful features of the book is the inclusion, at each chapter head, of an intriguing rhyming couplet:

'Walls of ice, stars of silver,
Winter ways you'll walk forever.' (p 143)

These enhance the text magically, and add up to a lyrical synopsis of the essential story; a summation well worth the assembling. 

This is 'Fairy Tale' if you like. But it is not the Fairy Tale of Grimm or Perrault. Nor yet are these fairies from the bottom of  a Victorian garden. These folk are snow cold and terrifying.  There are perhaps echoes of Greek myth, emphasising the universality of this material. There is even more of The Snow Queen. But this is deeper rooted. This is a Fairy Tale of the Celtic people, a Fairy Tale of the western realms, a tale of the Tylwyth Teg. It was here before Anderson. It was here before we were. Long before. But it will outstay us too. And Catherine Fisher's magical book will last with it. 

For teachers, I think this would make an outstanding pre-Christmas read-aloud; one that will stretch children's language and imagination, whilst showing them that story can be completely captivating through other means than roller-coaster action or knockabout silliness. In Catherine Fisher's skilful hands, together you could start to reach gently, yet engagingly, towards the numinous. And towards Christmas too. 

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

The Glass of Lead and Gold by Cornelia Funke

'It is hard to lose a friend, especially when you have only one.'

A writer for all ages

Cornelia Funke is a world superstar writer of fantasy for children. We, and her young readers, should all be enormously grateful for her prolific output. One of her many and varied talents is an ability to write effectively for a wide range of age groups. Of course, her Inkheart sequence, for older children, is an established classic of the genre and fully deserves to be so. For rather younger children, she has recently added a charming sequel, The Griffin's Feather to her enchanting book, The Dragon Rider. Betwixt and between come many other gems, The Thief Lord and Ghost Knight being amongst my personal favourites.

Her Reckless sequence (sometimes known as Mirrorworld) is every bit as fine a work as Inkheart, perhaps finer in its own way, but it is a dark 'fairy tale', with strong, young adult themes, and is really for a 14+ audience. This particular work has had a rather chequered publishing history but now seems to have found a home in the UK with the wonderful 'Pushkin Press', and I am delight to see it Their paperback issues of the books formerly independently published in hardback thankfully adopt the full text, including the author's stunning illustrations, and will hopefully now help bring them to the wide YA audience here that they so richly deserve. 

However, what links all of Cornelia Funke's work is a an idiosyncrasy of imagination and wonderfully powerful storytelling. It stems, perhaps, from her German background and its particular heritage of children's writing, rooting back to the Brothers Grimm and beyond into Teutonic forests. She is certainly a writer with a unique voice - and a totally captivating one. 

Something old, something new 

Now, I am thrilled to say,  she had stuck with Pushkin (or they her) for the publication of this quite delightful little volume, The Glass of Lead and Gold. This is physically a small volume and it contents essentially a long short story, or perhaps a short novella. In this sense its closest publishing parallels are perhaps the Lyra's Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North volumes that so valuably supplement Philip Pullman's superb œvre. 

The story is set in Londra, a 'mirror' version of London, that in many ways reflects the reality of the real Victorian city, but is also inhabited by a myriad 'faery' folk, sprites, hobs , witches, trolls and many others. In this respect it does bear some relation to the Reckless books, but otherwise, despite its teenage protagonist, it is perfectly accessible to and suitable for a younger audience too. It is  essentially a Fairy Tale, but a totally new-conceived and wondrous one. It has many of the characteristics of this genre, but adds far richer and more rounded characters as well as a much more detailed and captivating setting. 

A big little book

For such a small book, this one has an awful lot going for it. Cornelia Funke usually writes in her native German, later translated into English. Here, however, she writes straight into English and clearly demonstrates that her skill in this additional language is wonderfully strong; her prose has the vivid clarity of the very best tales and often touches in its simple effectiveness. The volume itself is beautifully produced, enhanced by the author's own pencil drawings; the sprits are a particular delight. Impoverished mudlark, Tabetha, is  subtly drawn but strong protagonist. The way she is eventually able to move, by way of many emotional ups and downs, from her allegiance to the cold, dark river 'Themse'  to a commitment to 'a human river of faces and voices', is truly heartwarming. There are also clear messages about inclusion, built around the secondary character of a girl with only one hand. In all, it is a big story between small covers.  Oh . . . And it's set at Christmas too. It would make a splendid stocking filler for many a young reader. 

Thursday, 27 September 2018

The Wizards of Once: Twice Magic by Cressida Cowell

'The real magic is imagination.'

Really twice magic?

Cressida Cowell was already a phenomenon, who enticed countless children into reading, and kept them reading, with her enormously entertaining How to Train Your Dragon series*. Then, last year she struck pure children's literature gold with The Wizards of Once. If ever a book were deservedly destined to joint the ranks of great children's classics, and delight generations now and to come, this is such a one. (See my review from September 2017.)

The question was could she perform the same magic twice? 

Of course, being the writer and artist she is, the answer is a resounding yes. Inevitably, revisiting the same characters and world, this sequel cannot have the original total freshness of the first in the series. However, this is a world and characters well worth revisiting, and they come back alive here just as captivatingly as they did before. Once again the adventure rollicks along, with a clever mixture of thrills and laughs at every turn. The pervasive humour can be witty or farcical and is, as ever, hugely enhanced by the author's copious, anarchic illustrations. Her sketchy drawings, inky doodles and scrawled annotations, so attractive and entertaining to her young audience, hide great artistic skill and sensitivity behind their apparent casualness. 

Deeper magic yet

Yet her characters have some real depth too, and engender emotional empathy as well as providing vicarious experience of magical power and derring do. What child does not want literally to fly off on the door of their former 'punishment cupboard'? Although providing villains aplenty, the  plot too has more to it than simple good v evil, and its  themes will make its young readers think, even amidst their guffaws, yelps and cheers. 

In fact, one of Cressida Cowell's great gifts to all of us who wish to promote children reading is that through enticing humour and excitement she leads young readers subtly towards the world of literature and fine writing. With its 'unknown narrator', changing perspectives, and relatively involved, extended plot, Twice Magic is actually a fairly sophisticated novel, introducing literary conventions with which children can begin to become accustomed whilst hardly realising it. It is fine writing in jesters clothing, a treasure hoard that will buy yet more riches into the future. 

More than anything though, Cressida Cowell's greatest gift of all is that of imagination; imagination in spades; imagination that engenders imagination. 

'The real magic is imagination', she herself writes, and this magical imagination is Cressida Cowell's. 

It is book that will truly help children to 'keep hoping, keep guessing, keep dreaming'.

The closing poem on page 386 says all. Every parent and teacher should stick it to their fridge door - and perhaps take its message to heart. 

'I am young, I am poor, I can offer you nothing,
All that I have is this bright pair of wings 
This air that I eat, these winds that I sleep on,
This star path I dance in, where the moon sings . . . '

Once. Twice. Magic. 

*And continues to do so. 

The Book of Dust: 1 La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (Paperback Edition)

If there are any children's literature enthusiasts left who haven't read La Belle Sauvage then the opportunity of its recent issue in paperback should not be missed. This sequel/prequel to His Dark Materials wonderfully extends and expands what is undoubtedly one of the  masterworks of contemporary fantasy. (See my full review from October 2017.)

However, even for those who already own a hardback copy, this new edition is worth buying for its inclusion of new original artwork by Chris Wormell. His many striking wood engravings now augment the scale, richness and intensity of the story most effectively. Like all the very best illustrations,  they help create both the detail and the drama of  the narrative without demeaning either the author's vivid text or the reader's own imagination. They are in themselves a stunning achievement and their images will long haunt this particular reader, along I suspect with many others, so that I can now hardly countenance the book without them. 

For those who have already ridden in the 'Sauvage' they provide a compelling incentive to read it all again. In fact, if you will excuse me . . . 

Saturday, 22 September 2018

The Blue Cat by Ursula Dubosarsky

'My mother says you just have to live it and lump it,' said Hilda. 
'I won't lump it,' I said. 
'You have to,' said Hilda. 'That's all there is. Nothing's the same since the war. Nothing's the same any more.'
Except the sky, I thought. It was the same sky. (p 157)

A wonderful discovery

Whilst I always strongly advocate the use of real bookshops whenever possible (and preferably independent ones), I have to admit that the internet does provide some benefits for book buying. One such is that children's books published in North America, but not in the UK, are now much easier to get hold of than they used to be. Since these include many by quite wonderful authors, that has to be a great thing. Sadly, however, this accessibility does not currently apply to the same extent to Australian publications. Yet the Antipodes too have some truly outstanding children's writers. Thankfully there are exceptions to the sourcing difficulty,* but it does still mean that we miss out on some very fine children's books. For example, I think it is fair to say that Ursula Dubosarsky is very little known or read here. Yet I would place her in the very top rank of children's authors writing today. She is producing children's literature that is both groundbreaking and breathtaking - and often heartbreaking too. 

Happily, her latest novel for young readers**, The Blue Cat, has just become available to those here who are prepared to seek it out - an action that I would most strongly urge you to take. 

A sophisticated book for sophisticated readers

We need to be clear, though. Many of Ursula Dubrovsky's novels are great works of children's literature. This makes them something close to the children's equivalent of high quality literary fiction for adults. They are not 'airport reads'. They are not necessarily books for the many children who (understandably enough) look to reading for comforting escape, for amusing entertainment or for exciting  adventure. They are probably not books to entice reluctant readers. Although their actual language is relatively simple, and many incidents superficially quotidian,  they are actually deeply challenging in style and content.  This author throws in startling images, that would be easy to gloss past, but need instead to be savoured. Unlike Ellery!

'Ellery was sitting, reading a book. When he turned the pages, he did so quickly as though he could hardly wait for the words coming next, like gulps of food.' (p 43)

Readers need to stick with her books,  even when nothing much seems ,superficially, to be happening. They need to be able to read between lines to find the fascination, the mystery, the beauty, the tragedy and the human truth that are all indubitably there. 

Hers are, however, books for young readers who want to be transported to other places and other times; who want to be taken right inside lives very different from their own; who possess a deep sense of empathy and who want to understand more about the world in which they are growing up, even when that understanding comes at a price. It is for children who no longer believe that all dragons can be slain by bold warriors, (or even humble Hobbits) and that 'happily ever after' is far too simplistic an ending. The Blue Cat is no exception. 

The impact of war

It is set in Sydney in 1942, as the affects of  WWII impinge more an more on the lives of Australian children: many parents and older siblings go off to combat,  American forces become a familiar sight, refugees arrive from Europe, and the threat of Japanese invasion increases almost daily.  All of this is recorded principally through the eyes of of a young girl, Columba. In the hands of this author, her first person narrative catches the voice, and mind, of the child quite brilliantly. There are many things happening that Columba does not fully understand, and has to try to make sense of in her own terms, but she is also sensitive and intuitive . She feels more than she knows, and her feelings are often chillingly perceptive. 

'Everyone knew the Germans were winning and soon the Japanese would arrive and we would soon be killed, but most of the time we all pretend it wasn't happening. There were only those very quiet moments - when someone, or something, laid a frozen hand on my neck.' (P 61)

Images verbal and visual

In a particular act of inspiration, Ursula Dubosarsky integrates into her text sourced images, a period picture here, an ARP notice there, 'the sort of thing Columba might have seen and read as she roamed the streets of Neutral Bay in 1942'. Remarkably, what could have been mere illustrations are absorbed into her narrative,  adding further complexity to her verbal conjurings in a way that intriguingly suspends her tale on an enigmatic cusp between history and fiction; one that speaks of truth if not of actuality. 

UK readers need not fear though, that this Australian context will make it is a story our children will find distant or hard too relate to. Whilst the small differences in life and culture are fascinating, the parallels with life in wartime Britain are huge, and the book's themes universal at almost every level. 

And an enigmatic cat

In many senses The Blue Cat is a novel that reveals itself backwards,  even as its story moves forwards. That is to say, its ending throws much of the book into perspective, bringing many enigmatic images into sharper focus and diving down through layers of former simplicity. Only having finished its journey do you see where it was taking you all along - although you may well wish you had not. It is a truly remarkable book, and its  climactic scene in the amusement park one of the most skilfully written pieces of utter devastation I have ever read. It captures all the soul-rending horror of the Auschwitz gas chambers whilst describing something utterly different. Few if any other writers could pull it off. In closing the author quotes a poem of Friedrich Rückert, famously used as a text for one of Gustav Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (Songs of the Death of Children). The irony of its superficial comfort is just about as distressing in this context as it is when accompanied by the music. Read it without screaming inside if you can. Is there comfort to be had? Only in the same reality as its searing tears.  We live under the same sky. 

No book relating to the Second World War and its horrors has moved me more since I read the life-changing 0nce sequence, by another wonderful Australian writer, Maurice Gleitzman. Although here the horrors are only conjured obliquely, through metaphor, they are no les affecting. Neither writer is 'better', they are just very differently great. You need to read both.  

The Blue Cat is not a particularly long book, but it is one that needs to be read slowly, to relish its captivating detail, to pick up its delicate nuances, and to spot the rare glimpses of the elusive blue cat amidst the seemingly commonplace experiences of a war-haunted childhood. 

'I always imagined swimming like an eel or a platypus, down in the deep water where it was black as night. If I went even deeper I would be able to see nothing at all and it would be so cold I wouldn't feel anything either. I would forget I had a body. It would be as though I had turned into water, free and invisible.' (p 10)

This is not a book for the faint hearted. Is it, then, a book for children? Yes. But it is not perhaps a book for all children. It is a book for those who have the sensitivity to let startling images speak to their hearts rather than to their superficial understanding; for those who ponder, wonder, dread, hope, empathise and care. It is a book for those most aware that we do indeed all live under the same sky. 

Also available 

Two other novels by this author were published here only a few years back (from Walker Books, labelled 'World Voices') so should still be obtainable. The Red Shoe has to be another of the very finest works of young people's fiction, but again it is challenging in both style and content. Although written before The Blue Cat, this book has a setting that is just a little later, shortly after the end of WWII. It is the story of three sisters in a family whose life is seriously affected by a father traumatised by his recent wartime experience. It is again a superlative example of capturing the voice of a young child, her thinking, her emotions, and her completely individual way of seeing the world. Matilda, the youngest of the three sisters often sees more than she understands, yet she can be sensitive and naively honest too. She is a superlative fictional creation, and it is by reading between the lines of her observations that we begin to piece together the tragedy that underlies her quiet but intense family drama. The skilful  author remarkably shows how all this can be achieved through a third person, past tense narration. Although Matilda's remains the dominant voice, Ursula Dubosarsky sometimes subtly shifts perspective between the sisters. The whole is like a master class in writing, without being in the least dry or didactic. 

Once again there is an oh-so-clever, indeed a truly mind-expanding, blending of her imagined narrative with snippets of 'found' actual material, this time extracts from the Sydney newspapers of the period. They add yet more depths to a fiction that already comprises more layers than an onion. Once again the denouement of the fiction is devastatingly shocking, but this time it is followed by a more comforting resolution - thank goodness. The whole is a true masterpiece and emphatically not to be missed. 

And more awaits

In the same series from Walker Books is also The Golden Day. I haven't read that one yet, but hope to do so very soon, along with as many of her other books as I can get my hands on. 

*International blockbuster authors like Garth Nix and John Flanagan are, of course easily found, and thankfully a some very fine writers like Karen Foxlee have secured UK (and US) publication. 
**Perhaps age 11-14ish, broadly speaking. She has also written many picture books and stories for younger children, as well as non-fiction about language itself.